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17 April 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Science ambassadors
Friends Tekano Mbonani and Chaka Mofokeng are pursuing graduate degrees in respectively Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape. The two got together and decided to reach out to the high school, Leseding Technical Secondary School, where they came from.

It was a full house as more than 120 learners packed the hall at the Leseding Technical Secondary School in the Free State, where two young Astronomy researchers had come home to tell their younger peers about their studies and career prospects across South Africa.

Chaka Mofokeng and Tekano Mbonani are both former learners at the high school. Currently pursuing graduate degrees – for Mbonani in Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS), and for Mofokeng in Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape – the two friends got together and decided to reach out to the high school where they came from.

The event took place in January before schoolwork, tests, and exam preparations are occupying learners’ minds, inviting them to think about the big picture – the future, and how to be part of it. This is timely, because in July last year, the MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is the first step to the international SKA telescope project, but it is already one of the best radio telescopes in the world and has placed South Africa firmly on the world map of radio astronomy and engineering.

Building a bridge
“This project enables us to build a bridge between secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently focused on senior secondary students, we aim to promote science through outreach events and activities. Using science and technology-based activities and events, such as stargazing at an observatory or exploring the universe in a planetarium, we want to attract these future secondary graduates. We also provide mentorship, hoping to help them improve their academic performance in matric,” said Mbonani.

For a whole morning, they spoke about their journeys, about science, about the skills that scientists acquire during their studies and all the opportunities such studies open up in an era where the 4th Industrial Revolution is predicted to reduce the number of jobs in many traditional professions. They addressed their peers in both English and Sesotho.

Astronomy in South Africa contributes to critical-skills development. Investing in the MeerKAT, for example, meant that over a thousand bursaries were made available through the SKA South Africa Human Capacity Development programme. Young scientists like Mofokeng and Mbonani have the opportunity to be part of MeerKAT science projects through their studies, using machine learning and other skills that are high in demand in today’s world. This was one of the messages they brought home.

Gaining new skills

“As an Astronomy research student, I have gained skills such as data analysis, mathematical modelling, communication and writing, programming, and teamwork, among others. These are requirements for most companies and institutions. With the unfolding of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such skills sets make young and aspiring scientists the perfect candidates for making the most of future opportunities,” reflected Mofokeng.

Most of the learners said they have never attended a science-outreach event. They were inspired by the young scientists’ stories and nearly half of them said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science. The learners also expressed a strong interest in more events of this kind, as well as mentorship during Grades 11 and 12 from peers at university. They asked about the salaries earned by astronomers, how long the studies take, and where astronomers are working in South Africa.

This initiative, started by two bright young scientists, hopefully marks the beginning of many more events of this kind. Mofokeng and Mbonani are already planning what to do on their next trip home.

News Archive

Childhood obesity should be curbed early
2017-03-15

Description: Child obesity Tags: Child obesity

Serious intervention by parents is required to deal
with childhood obesity. Prof Louise van den Berg and
a group of final-year PhD students worked on a study
about the prevalence of obesity in six-year-olds in
South Africa.
Photo: Supplied

If your child is overweight when they start school at the age of six, unless you do something about it at that point, the indications are they are going to be overweight teenagers and obese adults. This is according to University of the Free State’s Prof Louise van den Berg.

Evidence has shown that overweight children and teenagers have a greater risk of developing lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease later in life, and dying prematurely.

Obesity is a global pandemic rapidly spreading among adults and children, in developed and developing countries alike.

Dr Van den Berg worked with Keagan Di Ascenzo, Maryke Ferreira, Monja-Marie Kok, Anneke Lauwrens, all PhD students with the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, to conduct the study. Their research found that children who are overweight by the time they turn six should be screened for weight problems.

Why six-year-olds?
Children who are overweight between the ages of two and five are five times more likely to be overweight when they are 12. There are two periods in a normal life cycle when the body makes new fat cells. The first is in the uterus and the second is around the age of six. The second phase lasts from the age of six to puberty.

The study assessed the prevalence of obesity in six-year-olds as part of a campaign in South Africa to raise awareness of the problem among parents and educators.

A total of 99 children were chosen from seven schools in Mangaung, the capital city of Free State. The schools were chosen from quintile four and five schools, which when measured by their own resources and economic circumstances, are well resourced and serve largely middle-class and wealthy communities.

The children’s weight, height and waist circumference were measured and used to calculate a body mass index score and waist-to-height ratio. Both these figures are good predictors for future lifestyle disease risks such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. A person with a good waist-to-height ratio can wrap a piece of string equal to their height around their waist at least twice.

When the children had a higher body mass index, they also had an increased waist to height ratio. The study found one in four children from the schools surveyed were overweight when they started primary school.

Nipping the fat in the bud
Although there are many factors that play a role in preventing childhood obesity, parents’ perceptions of their children’s weight play an important role. A recent study found that more than 50% of parents underestimate the weight of their obese children. These parents remain unaware of the risks their children face and are not motivated to take any action.

At least half of the parents whose children are overweight struggle to recognise their children’s weight problems fearing that they will be labelled or stigmatised. By the time they turn six overweight children should be referred to dieticians and nutritionists who are qualified to guide their parents in getting them to eat well and be more physically active at pre-primary and primary school.

The high prevalence of weight problems among six-year-olds found in this study is an urgent call to healthcare professionals to step up and empower parents, educators and children with the necessary skills for healthy dietary practices and adequate physical activity.

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